And so it was yesterday I found myself eating a fresh pastry listening to Lord Sugar (formerly Sir Alan, previously one assumes just Alan). For anyone in the States who may be reading this, Alan Sugar is a bit like a cockney Donald Trump, only with his own hair. A self made billionaire and the big boss on the popular TV series The Apprentice. He is also the Government’s appointed Business Tsar in that his role is to go out and meet people running small to medium sized businesses around the country to take the temperature, if you like, of what the issues are. The two-hour Q&A session was an opportunity for local business people to put their questions to Lord Sugar.
As the great man entered the room in front of around 150 invited delegates, I couldn’t work out whether the look on his face indicated a sense of trepidation (things had got a bit tasty in other events) or was just a bit bored. I wondered if he was thinking, “What am I doing in bloody Bristol on a bloody Thursday morning when I could be out selling stuff.”
He soon got into his stride, however, with advice and thought delivered in his renowned forthright and entertaining manner. Here are some of the highlights:
“Advertising budgets are always spent. Every last penny. Tough job those Marketing Managers have pissing my money up the wall.”
I think it’s fair to say that Lord Sugar is a nuts and bolts man. Advertising is an important part of the mix, but as we have seen in The Apprentice on the advertising weeks, he doesn’t do subtlety. Basically, he was referring to the fact that in a recession the first budget that is cut is advertising and marketing.
“Not sure about this networking malarkey. When do you actually go out and sell stuff?”
Someone in the room suggested they had a business idea for bringing together like-minded entrepreneurs to share ideas. Didn’t go down well that one. “Don’t sound like a great idea to me.” I think there is a distinction to be made between genuine business related networking and building business relationships as opposed to just ‘sharing ideas’.
Not sure what his view on social networking is, though,and as tempted as I was to ask, “Do you tweet, Lord Sugar?” I just couldn’t.
“The staff are your business.”
Recognising that people are a fundamental part of any business – as is recruiting and retaining the right ones! Notice he uses the word ‘staff’.
“I always say to lawyers who tell me they’re going to go into business, stick to what you’re good at because you’re clueless”
His advice to anyone starting up in business.
“The worst person to ask about your idea is your Mum.”
If you have a business idea get it ripped to shreds by someone who isn’t close to it or you for a proper evaluation!
“Verbal agreements are OK if you go up to the counter at Waitrose to buy some fish.”
Someone had mentioned the difficulty they had in getting clients to pay their invoices. Much to Lord Sugar’s disgust (you’ve seen the expression on The Apprentice, think ‘pants’) they hadn’t got a Purchase Order or any written agreement from the client on payment terms. Just to rub it in and probably wishing they’re just kept quiet he added, “This is really basic stuff.”
“Go back and beat the banks up.”
This was about the art of negotiation on banking terms if you have a full pipeline of orders and a healthy business. Don’t just use it as an excuse.
“You get a lot of failures on the way up and you try to succeed more than fail.”
This was in answer to a question about the challenges faced when starting up a business, particularly in the early stages.
“What toughens you up is when things go wrong, people disappoint you and let you down. You learn who you can work with.”
This resonated with me. I’ve learnt a lot about people, particularly this year it seems, whose ethics leave a lot to be desired, but it happens. They’re the ones that have to look at themselves in the mirror and it was good to hear Lord Sugar talking candidly about this. Fortunately, these people are also in the minority as I’ve met many more people who have shown refreshing honesty, integrity and never fail to surprise in their willingness to engage and support.
So I very much enjoyed it. I would almost say it was inspirational because you know he’s been there and when you listen to him you understand why he’s so good at what he does. I liked his directness and his honesty. Characteristics I very much admire in anyone I’m working with.